The United States and China have maintained a complex, if often uncomfortable, relationship over the last 60 years. Two global superpowers (or superpower and “rising” superpower in China’s case) have been dancing between extremes of all-out conflict and global diarchy ever since Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution violently overthrew the Nationalist government and established the People’s Republic of China – its current title – in October 1949. American supported the side of Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists, resulting in a 25-year freeze in diplomatic relations, only reestablished under the Nixon Administration in 1971 via a friendly international game of ping pong. It is useful to look at eight years of relations with China during the Obama Administration to gain some perspective on the situation. From the beginning of his first term, Obama had six major diplomatic priorities. The sixth and final was “returning to the Asia Pacific”, as in directing America’s attention to its interests and allies in the Pacific as opposed to its allies across and along the Atlantic Ocean. Though it employed many euphemisms like “rebalancing” and “pivoting”, the aim of his policies were clear – to contain the rapid rise of China on the global stage.
There was good reason for Obama to take this policy. In 2010, China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world. Increased military spending and its provocative militarization of the South China Sea on multiple occasions contributed to rocky a relationship from 2010 to 2016. But by any measure, the eight years of Obama did bring about constructive developments in relations between the two countries. During his two terms, Obama met with Chinese president Xi Jinping a total of eleven times, and impressive strides in both economic trade and cultural relations have improved significantly. One of the most awkward policy topics between the two rivals is China’s relationship with North Korea.
China is North Korea’s largest trading partner, and holds the most leverage on the country than any other nation in the world. According to the Center for Foreign Relations, China supplies North Korea with the majority of its food and energy supplies and constitutes 90% of its trade volume, which totaled $2.6 billion in the first half of 2017.
However, China is also rightly concerned about their neighbor’s nuclear weapons capabilities. Despite being a sometimes-supporter of Security Council sanctions against the small regime, China is predominantly concerned with maintaining North Korea’s stability as a within the larger political puzzle in the region. 45’s election in 2016 heralded a new, unpredictable chapter in US-Sino relations. The North Korea issue has been especially buzzed-about recently. President Donald Trump’s temper is fast and furious, bested only by his impressive rate of Tweets-per-minute. He is the first President to publicly make the old “my nuclear button is bigger than your nuclear button” attack against North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un.
He is also the first to do so over Twitter. During his presidency, Obama employed a policy known as “strategic patience”, in which he simply waited and hoped for North Korea to completely collapse or be forced to disarm its nuclear weapons by China. Neither occurred. In fact, North Korea’s nuclear development has only been amplified by Kim Jong-un. Former Washington Post correspondent John Pomfret wrote about the China/North Korea relationship in November 2016, saying that Obama’s successor will “inherit a looming crisis there and one that could very well challenge America’s position in Asia”.
Whatever Trump’s diplomatic abilities (or those of his advisors) may be, his relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping remaisn amicable – for the moment. During his campaign and in 2017, Trump has focused on ending what he believes to be “very one-sided and unfair” trading practices by China. He cited the large trade deficit and claimed that the US would address “unfair trading practices… access, forced technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property — which just by itself is costing the United States and its companies at least $300 billion a year.” Though some critics called his tone hostile, Trump did give “credit” to China for exploiting what he believed to be a weak foreign and economic trade policy under Obama’s leadership.
As for these supposed measures, White House analysts at Politico predict that the Trump Administration will soon unveil a plan for aggressive trade crackdowns composed of new tariffs to combat foreign trade imbalances. Many consider the January State of the Union address to be the deadline for solidifying these measures. There has been a lot of white noise recently concerning Trump’s mental health and cable TV-watching and “executive time”, but perhaps these new tariffs will represent one of the few tangible, useful pieces of legislation a year since he took office. We can only hope that the President and his advisors will continue to foster constructive and effective progress with China over the next three years, or face some very uncertain consequences in the near future.